The Nuclear Option’s Bipartisanship-Busting Bright Side

by on May 17th, 2005

The Senate’s so-called nuclear option seems likely to go into effect in the next few days. That would end the filibuster as a means of blocking majority action, at least in terms of judicial nominations. Despite the likely outcome — swifter and more certain approval of George Bush’s choices to turn the judicial clock backward a century or so — the apocalyptic terminology is a bit overblown. Sure, the prospect of the majority Republicans running things single-handedly even beyond judicial appointments is scary, but what we’ve got today is already pretty scary. Indeed, maybe eroding the bipartisan middle is good thing.

Here’s the broad danger, as described by the Christian Science Monitor:

“It will change the character of Senate,” says Robert Dove, a former Senate parliamentarian, now professor at George Washington University. “Since the 1976 election, no party has had 60 in their caucus. It meant that if you’re going to get cloture, it’s going to be bipartisan. With the proposed rule change, ending debate becomes a much more partisan tool,” he adds.

Beyond appeals to fair play and the Senate’s hallowed traditions, plus threats of holding up Senate business in other ways, the Democrats can do little but hope they someday regain a majority and have a chance to retaliate. That’s not unreasonable, but progressives have another option: stop applauding the kind of bipartisanship that’s brought us the Iraq war, the Patriot Act , and No Child Left Behind and start taking advantage of its end.

There’s a popular myth that bipartisanship is always a good thing, that compromise is always the best outcome, that progress and democracy and good policy always arise in the middle. Many who define themselves as somewhere vaguely in the center consider the political extremes outlandish, dogmatic, vaguely anti-American. That’s why one New Democrat after another has turned toward the middle, abandoning what should be their natural base somewhere on the left. One result is that Democrats become at least as dogmatically wedded to the status quo as lefties supposedly are to trying to change it. Another result is that too many policies are so watered down with concessions designed to amass bipartisan support and avoid shaking things up that they can’t possibly effect meaningful change.

If things work out well, the end of Senate bipartisanship will ripple outward beyond the Capitol. It could reshape the internal Democrat debate over whether to keep trying to steal Republican issues or whether instead to return to the broad coalition of workers, people of color, environmentalists, and others who have increasingly abandoned all hope of Democratic attention. Conventional wisdom may push toward the middle, but the nuclear option exposes that middle’s false hope.

A more militant political force further to the left willing to stand for more fundamental changes in society than today’s Democrats will ever support may find that all those supposedly apathetic Americans really do pay attention to who’s on their side and who’s only pretending. They may even become a majority, without having to worry about Republican filibusters standing in their way.

Dennis Fox